It was actually a mistake when it started out. I wasn’t even supposed to be trying out for the competition. Not because I don’t like competitions – I don’t, for the record, I lose often! – but because I didn’t even know it existed. Diana was the one who told me about it. We love a particular restaurant, and they were having a promo offer – take a picture of your food, send it to us, get enough votes, and win tickets to one of three exotic locations. Or rather, they seemed exotic to me. I’ve been to less than ten countries outside of the country I grew up in. It’s a record I am working on. Why?
A couple of reasons – one of them being this. You know those places you just want to see and you have no reasoning as to why you want to see them? They just hold some type of ethereal appeal, an inexplicable urging, that makes you want to go there. Nothing to do with history, or legends; nothing you’ve seen on TV, although that helps. There are so many places on this planet whose air I just want to breathe, whose people I want to see, whose sun I want to feel kissing my skin on a faraway shore. They say it isn’t a different sun – but I know it will be.
Anyway, so the three locations that were a possible win were Athens, London, and Tel Aviv. When I heard about the places, I thought, I would be ok with winning any of these. Let’s go see the London Eye (what is even a London Eye?)! Or the oldest university in the world! Or, the ancient Acropolis that’s in all the books! And so I took a picture from my gallery that I had – of this well-loved restaurant – and tried my luck.
In short, I won. Tickets to Greece. Me and my man were going to a place we didn’t even really know we wanted to go – until we got there. We got the visas – chose the dates – researched accommodation – bragged to all our friends, of course – and then, full of wanderlust and excitement, boarded a plane business class style to go to a country – nay, a continent, neither of us had ever been to before.
We didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t know the language, obviously, and we didn’t know how the currency we had would compare with the one we were about to trade forex for. All we knew was that we were feeling pretty lucky – even though the flight was delayed and by the time we got to the Airbnb, our host had left, and left his parents to guide us through the apartment.
This was the first surprise. That he would make sure someone was there to welcome us? Most people I know don’t even want to see, much less greet, their guests, you know what I mean? There are instructions in the apartment – don’t have parties, no pets allowed, look behind you when you flush (I kid, but this should be a thing). There was a quick moment where we had no idea how to communicate – they didn’t speak English, we didn’t speak Greek – but I speak very basic and very bad French, and I butchered it profusely because it was the only common language we had.
The funny thing about travel, though, is this. I always say that travel is for remembering home. It reminds you where you come from and why you love it. But on the converse side, it also reminds you about the things you can’t stand about home. Greek people operate on a completely different level of friendliness and hospitality – the consulate at the embassy told us to cancel our accommodation and pick a better area to stay in! The week before we landed, there was a story in the news about a kid who was killed on one of the partying islands in a racist attack. He was black. We are black. We were scared. But we had absolutely no cause to be. The Greek are the most helpful people I have ever met – to anyone. And nowhere showed us that more than our visit to the island of Crete – or Creta, as they call it. The birthplace of the mighty Zeus of old Greece; the god of sky and thunder.
Finding an Airbnb here was hectic, because they were full, because it was summer and very popular, but we eventually decided all we needed was a place to sleep. We navigated the eight-hour ferry and landed on the other side unscathed but confused – how come ferries in Kenya didn’t have split levels and restaurants and clubs in them? How is it that the seats in economy class were more comfortable than Mash Deluxe? And how was it so clean? And what was with that kid who decided that we looked lost and insisted on directing us to the reception?
We couldn’t figure out what bus to take, so in stilted everything, we found directions and got to where we thought we needed to go. As we got off the bus, a lady approached us to ask if we were Marina’s – our Airbnb host – guests. She said she was her neighbour and she was just getting a few things, and she could drop us where we needed to go. Which she did – and offered us watermelon and iced water in the sweltering heat as we waited for Marina.
Marina, is one of the most open people I have ever met. A quick example – she said we should come down to her village after spending a day on the main island. We, of course, thought she was joking. But when she repeated the offer the next day, accompanied with an offer of free accommodation, we felt it would have been stupid to not at least go check it out. What’s the point of being in a country and not seeing it, right? Her little village is called Tsoutsouros, and it was a two-hour bus ride from where we were staying. Her and her boyfriend Alex met us at the bus stop and proceeded to take us on a whirlwind tour around the small village – ok, I say whirlwind, but it was more of a breeze – around this charming little beach town. You know the type of town – where everyone knows each other’s gossip, and at the end of the day we all sit by the waters and drink ouzo, or raki – liquors made from the skin of grapes that flow in copious amounts the longer the day runs. It felt like being in a movie I didn’t know was going to be this good – especially when we saw their perfect beach. Topped by a perfect sunset. On a perfect day.
We only had one day in Tsoutsouros. When we were done, Marina drove us back to the Airbnb, while stopping to show us the ancient majestic churches she worshipped in as a kid, and letting us take part in holy rituals sacred to her people. She showed us the church of Saint Nicholas, known to us as Santa Claus, and told us the story of how she came to make a living in the city.
It’s a story that’s the same as that of any other person trying to make life better for themselves. You grow up in the village and then you get wise to what you need to do to have the life you want to live. It really isn’t that different from stories all over the world, is it? The commonality that weaves us together is the point, to me, of travel – being interesting people, and meeting interesting people. Sure, money might help you do it. But money can’t buy a spirit of adventure, or a feeling of freedom.
How willing are you to open yourself up to an experience of a lifetime that you didn’t know you could have?